Take this with a grain of salt (because it’s coming from someone who’s predisposed to feeling deeply about puppets), but there’s no greater proof of Family Tree’s fine character work than when Monk goes missing in tonight’s finale. This moves beyond the fact that no character stops to ridicule the grown woman reduced to panic by the absence of her fuzzy companion—this is an emotionally wrenching passage of “Cowboys” because so much work has gone into portraying Monk as just another one of the Chadwicks. In his sincerity and investment in the search for Monk, Chris O’Dowd drives home an essential quality of Tom Chadwick: The man’s personal identity is defined as much by his relationship with the people in his life as it is the various roles he’s tried to squeeze into over the course of Family Tree’s eight episodes. He’s no horse’s ass, farmer, or Civil War re-enactor—but he’s a hell of a brother.
If you’re looking for “Cowboys” to tell you who the Chadwicks truly are, then you’ll be disappointed. This week they’re masked heroes on the harsh frontier of the Venice Beach boardwalk, last week they were members of a proud Native American tradition—but these big, definable traits are mutable. The departures Family Tree makes from Christopher Guest’s film work are also huge assets to the series: In those movies, the main characters are typically older than Tom, Bea, and Pete, and a little more set in their ways. By giving itself three, pre-middle-age protagonists who still have a lot of searching to do, this first (and only?) season of Family Tree set itself up to suit those characters up differently from week-to-week—in a manner well suited to episodic television.
That’s fitting, because the central image on the Chadwick family crest would be a wardrobe cabinet. Or maybe a horse: This week’s piece of family history comes courtesy of Melvin Schmelff (Guest regular Bob Balaban, held for the finale because what other Family Tree role was he going to play?), grandson of Ezra “Tumbleweed Tim” Schmelff and overprotective guardian of the Jewish cowboy’s legacy. But like his performing relatives Harry and Bea, Ezra used his alter ego to reveal and conceal a part of himself. When Melvin presents Tom and Ally with a pair of custom-made Star of David spurs (inscribed with the Hebrew characters for “mazel tov”), he mentions that Melvin couldn’t wear them on set—“he did wear them at home all the time.” Even when a Chadwick ancestor settles on a way of presenting themselves to the outside world, there’s still some internal conflict.
“Cowboys” is a bit of a black sheep within Family Tree, because once Tom becomes seized by the spirit of Tumbleweed Tim, the episode kicks into a gear we’ve not seen in any previous installment. The scenes at Melvin’s house and the former Cottonwood Studios do a great job of priming the audience for the high-energy search to come: There’s rapid-fire patter in Tom and Ally’s conversations with Melvin, to a degree I wasn’t accustomed from Family Tree. By the time everyone arrives at the boardwalk, there are character, story, and tonal motivations tempering the somewhat grating highs of Nina Conti’s Monk-less delirium. For its first half, at least, “Cowboys” is Family Tree’s caper episode.
It’s a breaking of new ground for the series, which worked for me because the connection between Bea and Monk—and Tom’s understanding of that connection—has been so well established over the course of the season. When “Cowboys” settles back into more familiar, cocktail-party rhythms that echo “Welcome To America,” Al seems to establish a thesis for the episode and the series with his “I’ve never seen a hearse with a luggage rack on top” speech. However, Tom presents a better (if more obvious) statement of purpose for the series in the wake of Monk’s recovery: “He’s part of the family.” Essentially, Bea’s puppet straddles the line separating the artifacts in The Box and a legitimate member of the Chadwick clan.
To me, this makes a poignant point about the “stuff” that’s been left behind for Tom to sort through. Just as Monk is Bea’s most direct way of communicating, the objects in The Box are the only manner in which the current generation of Chadwicks can commune with those who came before them. They imbued these keepsakes with life and meaning while they were alive, to a lesser extent than Bea has with Monk—but one day, sooner than any of us would want to admit, our personal Monks will be the only thing left behind to speak for our time on this earth. That’s the soul behind the eccentricities and quirks of Family Tree.
Still, this wouldn’t be a wholly effective comic enterprise if it hadn’t also succeeded in crafting memorable, humorous interactions between the living. That’s where the half of “Cowboys” that takes place at Al and Kitty’s house comes in handy, granting us one, potentially final impression of these characters in the way they relate to one another. There’s minimal use of talking heads to get at these impressions: It’s all in the missed social cues and the sudden reveals, as when Mike’s “inappropriate uncle” act (or, as it’s known in certain circles, “The Fred Willard”) is given a new shade when it turns out the Kim he’s previously mentioned is a man. There’s also that spectacularly drawn out sequence in Al’s “special room,” where Tom thinks he’s uncovered one more undeniable link between himself and a relative—before the depths of Al’s conspiracy mania prove Tom wrong. In an episode that has to leave some threads dangling in case of renewal, the scene among Al’s models of Dealey Plaza, the moon, and the Titanic (“There’s no iceberg there.” “Exactly”) make a strong case against the comfort of tidy, convenient conclusions.
And that’s why I’m ultimately happy with “Cowboys” cutting to black in the middle of Tom and Ally’s kiss. It’s a bit rom-com cliché—right down to the airport setting—but it’s also not in Family Tree’s nature to provide the easy answer. Like every scenario Tom Chadwick has stumbled into and every piece of family memorabilia he’s investigated, that kiss could have dozens of meanings and open the gate to just as many paths. We might not get to trace those paths alongside the characters, but that’s fine—I’ve quite enjoyed the laughs and revelations we’ve discovered in the moment as Family Tree played out. The people, too—even the ones controlled by Nina Conti’s right hand.
Episode grade: A-
Season grade: B+
- Reading the Nielsen tea leaves with regard to a show’s renewal chances is always a fool’s errand—doubly so for a show on a premium cable network, where advertising dollars aren’t a factor and subscription numbers automatically set a limit on audience size. That’s said, I’m not getting my hopes up for a second season of Family Tree: To hold the last few episodes’ ratings up against those of other HBO comedies of the past two years, the show is doing better than Life’s Too Short, slightly worse than Girls season two, and about half as well as the most recent seasons of Veep and Eastbound And Down. Going on ratings alone, a second season of Family Tree looks like a long shot, but who knows—maybe the execs like being in the Christopher Guest business enough to want to see where that season-ending kiss leads. I wouldn’t object, but I also like the thought of the show ending before Tom has to choose between the family he has and the family he could have.
- On the Chadwick family crest, I suppose that next to the wardrobe and the horse, you’d also find a heart within a triangle, as twisty, turning love affairs also factor into the tragic story of Tumbleweed Tim. The scandal that wrecked Tim’s career also includes an underused Family Tree device: Archival images, always good for a laugh in a Guest film (think the increasingly desperate album covers from Mitch Cohen’s post-Mitch & Mickey career in A Mighty Wind), but appearing only sporadically in this series. Following the finale, only two Family Tree instances of this type of gag leap to mind: The newspaper headline announcing the death of Tom and Bea’s grandparents, and the genius crime-scene photo (with chalk outline of a horse) from “Cowboys.”
- In an alternate universe, people are dying to hear what David Sims and Todd VanDerWerff have to say about that episode of The Plantagenets that catches Tom and Ally’s attention near the end of “Cowboys.” (In a universe where I’m a quicker, more creative writer, every fake TV clip seen in Family Tree would’ve gotten an excerpt from a fake TV Club review in the strays.)
- This is what you hire Bob Balaban for: Giving a totally nonchalant read to the laundry list of cosmetic procedures Melvin mother-in-law has just undergone. “She had a tummy tuck, an eye job, and a butt reduction—she’s okay.”
- Finally, from me to the small-but-devoted family of commenters and readers who’ve been hanging out in this space the last few weeks: Thanks for reading and discussing! Maybe, just maybe, we’ll have more episodes to talk about in the future. Until then, let’s be grateful that there are so many clips of Nina Conti and Monk available on YouTube.